Snubbing the seal trade

Blocked from trading in 30 other countries, Canada’s seal industry has set its sights on China, to the fury of local animal welfare campaigners. Meng Si reports.

On March 29, the Canadian authorities finally responded to months of criticism from Chinese animal-protection groups, angered by the country’s determination to foster a seal trade with China. “If Chinese consumers like seal products, both countries benefit,” wrote the Canadian ambassador to Beijing, David Mulroney, in reply to an open letter signed by more than 50 organisations.

The critics were unimpressed. “Canada’s excuses haven’t changed, and they have failed to respond to NGO revelations about seal massacres,” Qin Xiaona, head of the Capital Animal Welfare Association, said to chinadialogue. Thirty countries, including European Union nations, the United States, Croatia and Mexico have banned the trade in seal products. Many animal protection groups are calling on the Chinese authorities to do the same.

But the Canadian government has been running a publicity campaign of its own

“We know that China is a huge potential market,” said Gail Shea, Canada’s minister of fisheries and oceans, during a trip to China in January last year. Following another visit a year later, she had even more exciting news for the seal industry back home: new arrangements for market entry would mean that, from January 13, 2011, the full range of Canadian seal products could be exported to China – including meat and oil for human consumption.

However, Qin Xiaona told chinadialogue that she had confirmed with the Chinese government that no legally binding agreement on market access has yet been signed – just a statement of intent – and the Chinese government has already met with the Canadian authorities to discuss the matter. “The publication of this inaccurate information by the Canadian government is inappropriate and benefits neither nation,” she said.

This has not deterred the Canadian media from presenting it as a done deal. Headlines such as “China gives Canada its approval of seal” and “Canada to ink deal to sell seal meat and oil in China” appeared in mainstream media outlets. The Globe and Mail quoted Wayne MacKinnon, the chairman of DPA Industries, a manufacturer of seal-oil supplements, as saying, “The Chinese eat anything. And they simply don’t understand why you would put one animal above another.” Other reports said that the Chinese have no regard for animal welfare and no related legislation.

On March 28, the China Chamber of International Commerce held a seminar on the seal trade at which Li Jianqiang, China policy consultant for Humane Society International, described the reports as “an accumulation of prejudice and error” and said that the Canadian government had rushed to release the “good news” in order to win over interested voters. “Gail Shea is actually misleading the seal industry,” Li said. “The Canadian government is clasping a worthless agreement and telling them the door is open, now get out there and if you can’t it’s your problem.” It is a cheap trick, he said.

Chinese animal protection groups have also objected to Canada’s publicity campaign.

To mark International Day of the Seal on March 15 and kick start a year of campaigning against Canadian seal products, the China Animal Protection Media Salon, Beijing-based NGO Green Beagle and the Capital Animal Welfare Association launched a new song, “Seal Baby”. At the same time, a member of the National Peoples’ Consultative Conference, Zhang Kangkang, proposed a ban on the import of Canadian seal products.

Speaking at a press conference in Beijing in November last year, Rebecca Aldworth, executive chair of the Humane Society International’s Canadian branch said: “Every year for the last 12 years I have observed the massacre of seals. I have witnessed indescribable cruelty, including wounded animals suffocating on their own blood, being beaten and dragged across the ice and skinned while still conscious.”

Canadian law permits the hunting of seals older than 12 days, and 97% of seals killed are less than three years old. Rebecca Aldworth said that the majority of Canadians also oppose the seal industry and do not buy seal products – and that this is why the Canadian government is putting its hopes in overseas markets. After the EU closed its doors to the products in 2009, attention shifted to China.

During her visit to China this year, Gail Shea also attended the 37th China Fur and Leather Products fair, to promote seal-fur products. This triggered a joint letter of protest from 40 animal-protection groups. At the fair, one activist pinned a banner to his own back: “Chinese people do not welcome Canadian seal products!!!”

On Chinese New Year’s eve, Guo Pei, the costume designer for the festivities’ annual TV extravaganza, received a letter of thanks from Humane Society International and 49 Chinese organisations after she announced she would not, as had been planned, use seal fur in the costume for the show’s host, Dong Qing. Chinese viewers speculated that exposure on the show would have boosted the popularity of seal fur.

The Canadian embassy had earlier issued a statement thanking Guo for her support for the seal industry, leading animal protection groups to suspect the fur to be used in the costume had been a gift from the Canadian government.

Qin Xiaona believes that these incidents are enough to prove that Chinese people are not, as international media have reported, willing to eat anything and indifferent to animal welfare. “I am sure the majority of Chinese people, once they know the truth, will reject seal products. The Canadian government has underestimated the Chinese people,” she said.

On March 13, an open letter entitled “Please don’t peddle blood-stained seal products in China” and signed by more than 50 domestic animal-protection groups was sent to Canada’s ambassador David Mulroney. His response, as explained above, disappointed Qin Xiaona. She explained that he justified his support for the seal trade on three grounds: strict government regulation ensures seal hunts are humane; excessive seal numbers are threatening the ecosystem; and the hunting and eating of seals is a traditional part of Inuit culture and livelihoods.

Qin dismissed each of these arguments: firstly, she said there is a large quantity of legally admissible video evidence that proves the Canadian government does not strictly regulate seal hunting. Secondly, there is actually a lot of debate about seal populations and, in any case, high numbers are no excuse for cruelty. And the third, cultural argument is even shakier, she said: “Every nation has some barbaric customs in its history – for example, foot-binding in China. But if people are to make progress, such customs need to be removed. Culture is no excuse for barbarism.” She said she is sure that Canada, as a developed nation, can find alternative livelihoods for the people involved in its tiny seal industry.

Chinese groups campaigning against the seal trade are urging the Chinese government to impose a trade ban. But Mei Xinyu of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation at the Ministry of Commerce said this was not the solution. At the seminar on seal products in China, Mei explained that World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules do not allow for such a ban, and giving trading partners a cause to pursue legal action against China would damage China’s standing in international trade negotiations. The European Union is currently embroiled in a WTO dispute with Canada over of its ban.

But Li Jianqiang points out that WTO rules allow for a product to be banned if it offends the moral principles of a nation. Zhang Dan, spokesperson for the China Animal Protection Media Salon, said: “The European Union and the United States are WTO members – why can they do it but China can’t?” She believes the government should follow the people’s wishes.

Mei Xinyu argued that, although the volume of seal products traded between Canada and China is tiny, a ban would lead to the customs authorities incurring large personnel and equipment costs. He suggested that the Chinese groups instead lobby the Canadian government to impose a ban on its seal industry, or concentrate on getting the WTO to change its rules.

The annual seal hunt starts again this spring, with the highest ever government quota: the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has given the go-ahead for 400,000 animals to be killed off Canada’s east coast. Before leaving China for the scene of the hunt, Rebecca Aldworth said: “China’s attitude is crucial. Chinese consumers could stop the next seal massacre.”

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage image from Greenpeace